It’s that feeling again—you feel tense, anxious, and out of breath. Your heart rate increases and you begin to sweat. But what’s happening to you? You’ve heard people describe similar experiences as panic attacks and as anxiety attacks.
But how do you know which kind of attack you are experiencing?
In truth, there is no such thing as an “anxiety attack.” At least not in a diagnosable sense. What people may be referring to when they say “anxiety attack” might be some of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, which is a diagnosable condition.
However, it could also be a panic attack, which is a diagnosable condition that shares some common symptoms with anxiety disorders. Though panic attacks and anxiety disorders share some common symptoms, there are several ways to tell the two apart.
In this post, Klarity will explore panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and their causes so you can better decide which condition fits your symptoms. We’ve helped 30,000+ people find online anxiety, depression, insomnia, and ADHD treatment through our novel telemedicine services.
If you want to learn how Klarity can help you find fast, affordable, and convenient online treatment for panic attacks or anxiety, take our brief 2-minute online assessment.
What is a Panic Attack?
A panic attack is described as the sudden onset of intense fear accompanied by severe physical fight-or-flight symptoms—racing heartbeat, shortness of breath, pain in the chest, trembling, etc. They can occur even when there isn’t an apparent cause or perceivable danger.
It’s common for a person to experience one or two panic attacks during their lifetime. However, when these attacks are unpredictable, frequent, and disproportionate to the actual level of danger, they can negatively impact a person’s quality of life.
What are the Symptoms of a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks occur without warning, though sometimes a person can learn what triggers them. They can happen any time of day or night during any activity. Untreated panic attacks can be dangerous when operating a vehicle or heavy machinery.
Some people experience frequent panic attacks, while others experience them once in a while. Though they only last a few minutes, a panic attack’s physical and mental symptoms often leave the person feeling exhausted and fatigued for the rest of the day. Sometimes panic attack symptoms are so intense that a person may think they are having a heart attack or dying.
One of the most difficult aspects of having frequent panic attacks is the fear of having one during inappropriate or inopportune times. This may cause a person to avoid activities and situations where they might have a panic attack. Some people might develop agoraphobia or a fear of leaving their homes due to frequent panic attacks.
The mental symptoms of a panic attack are
- A sense of impending doom or danger, even when one can’t be identified
- An overwhelming fear of loss of control
- An overwhelming fear of death
- Feelings of unreality, detachment, disassociation
The physical symptoms of a panic attack can include
- Rapid heart rate
- Chest-pounding sensations
- Abdominal cramping
- Chest pain
- Dizziness, lightheadedness, or faintness
- Numbness or tingling sensation
- Trembling, shaking in fear
- Shortness of breath
- Tightness in the back of the throat
- Hot flashes
What Causes a Panic Attack?
Panic attacks are intense physical and emotional reactions that are thought to have genetic, medical, and environmental causes. Sometimes there is no clear trigger for why a person has a panic attack.
Other times, panic attacks are caused by the fear of predictable or unpredictable threats—i.e., phobias. These threats might be imagined entirely (the fear of everyone on the street being out to get you) or could be real, even if unlikely (fear of dying in a hurricane, for example).
To draw a clear distinction, the DSM-V recognizes two types of panic attacks:
Expected Panic Attacks
With expected panic attacks, the cause or trigger is known. Usually, the person has a panic attack while performing an activity, task, or undertaking that has caused them to have a panic attack in the past.
Common triggers of expected panic attacks include
- Stressful exam or presentation
- Exposure to known phobias
- Certain social situations
- Traumatic triggers—exposure to events, people, or situations that cause the person to recall traumatic events
Unexpected Panic Attacks
When the panic attack has no known trigger or cause, it is considered an unexpected panic attack. According to WebMD, unexpected panic attacks make up 40% of all panic attacks in the US.
Risk Factors for Panic Attacks and Panic Disorder
You are more likely to experience a panic attack if you
- Have a personal history of panic attacks
- Have a family history of panic attacks or panic disorder
- Have a history of drug or alcohol use
- Experienced trauma
- Experience a high level of stress
- Have a mental health disorder like an anxiety disorder or depression
LGBT+ people are twice as likely to experience panic attacks or anxiety as non-LGBT+ people.
What is an Anxiety Attack?
“Anxiety attacks” are not a diagnosable condition, but anxiety disorders are. Anxiety disorders share many common symptoms with panic attacks. Additionally, a person can have an anxiety disorder and also experience panic attacks.
Confusion arises between anxiety and panic attacks because of shared symptoms and the fact that a person can experience both simultaneously.
However, the key differences between anxiety and panic attacks are
- Anxiety is a general term that describes various illnesses that fall under the umbrella of anxiety disorders, whereas a panic attack is a single, diagnosable condition.
- Anxiety is a gradual, always-present sense of worry, restlessness, and dread. It can last a very long time—months or even years. Panic attacks are acute and last only several minutes (though they can happen rapidly, one after the other).
- Both share shortness of breath and rapid heart rate symptoms, but an anxiety disorder can cause muscle tension, insomnia, and irritability. On the other hand, panic attacks lead to a sense of depersonalization and derealization (feeling disconnected from oneself and one’s surroundings).
Here are some anxiety disorders that can cause panic attack-like symptoms in people. Also, remember that people with anxiety disorders can have panic attacks and panic disorder too.
- generalized anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
- social anxiety disorder
- obsessive-compulsive disorder
- separation anxiety disorder
- agoraphobia (without previous history of panic disorder)
- post-traumatic stress disorder
What are the Symptoms of Anxiety?
Different anxiety disorders have different symptom profiles. For example, panic disorder, an anxiety disorder associated with panic attacks, is an anxiety disorder with panic attacks as a symptom.
To illustrate the difference between panic attacks and what is colloquially known as “anxiety attacks,” we will look at the symptoms of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD):
- Feeling restless, on edge, or agitated
- Becoming tired easily
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Muscle aches
- Unexplained pains
- Unable to control thoughts and feelings of worry
- Sleep disturbances—trouble falling or staying asleep
What Causes Anxiety?
Several factors might cause a person to develop an anxiety disorder.
Childhood Experiences or Past Trauma
Stress and trauma impact the way children grow into adults. Difficult or traumatic experiences in childhood can cause a person to develop an anxiety disorder later in life.
- Physical Abuse
- Sexual Abuse
- Emotional Abuse
- Experiencing Racism
- Experiencing Sexism
- Experiencing Homophobia or Transphobia
- Losing a Parent or Loved One
- Being Bullied
- Being Neglected
- Experiencing Poverty
Life circumstances can cause an adult to develop anxiety symptoms.
- Social and emotional isolation
- Being overworked
- Being in debt
- Experiencing housing issues, such as homelessness
- Losing a job or career
- Losing a partner, significant other, or spouse
- Experiencing pressure to succeed and excel
- Experiencing emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
- Financial insecurity
Co-Occurring Physical or Mental Health Problems
Certain medical conditions can cause anxiety or make existing anxiety worse. For example, living with a chronic or terminal illness can cause a person to develop an anxiety disorder. Also, certain mental illnesses can cause anxiety, such as ADHD and depression.
Certain Medications, Drugs, and Foods
Certain medications or recreational drugs can cause users to develop anxiety symptoms.
- Various psychiatric medications can cause anxiety
- Some non-psychiatric medications can also cause anxiety
- Alcohol, caffeine, sugar, and nicotine (and their withdrawal symptoms) can cause anxiety
Family History of Anxiety Disorders
If a close family member has an anxiety disorder, you are more likely to develop one. More research is needed to determine whether this trend is genetic, environmental, or the result of both.
Treatment for Panic Attacks and Anxiety
Untreated panic attacks or anxiety disorders can severely impact your ability to live a happy and fulfilling life. When untreated, these disorders impair your ability to function in day-to-day activities and can hurt your relationships at home and in the workplace.
However, effective treatments for panic attacks and anxiety disorders are available. Treatment plans usually involve a combination of talk therapy, antidepressants, relaxants, and self-regulating techniques.
Providers on Klarity Can Diagnose Panic Attacks and Anxiety Disorders—and Get You The Treatment You Need Within 48 Hours
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“Anxiety Disorders.” National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders
Carly Vandergriendt. “What’s the Difference Between a Panic Attack and an Anxiety Attack?” Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/panic-attack-vs-anxiety-attack
Jayne Leonard. “How do you know if you’re having a panic or anxiety attack?” Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321798
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Panic Attacks and Panic Disorders.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/panic-attacks/symptoms-causes/syc-20376021
Mayo Clinic Staff. “Anxiety Disorders.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anxiety/symptoms-causes/syc-20350961
Sheryl Ankrom. “Panic Attack vs. Anxiety Attack: How They Differ.” Very Well Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/anxiety-attacks-versus-panic-attacks-2584396
WebMD Editorial Contributors. “Signs of a Panic Attack.” WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/signs-panic-attack